When one envisions the gothic style, it is often tall churches with flying buttresses, pointed arches, ribbed vaults and stained glass windows that first come to mind. Yet, this medieval style was not limited to architecture. Gothic furniture, decorative objects and fine art all emerged in the medieval age, and each inevitably later found revivals and adaptations centuries later. Though the “Old World” Gothic period reigned for over 300 years, unfortunately very little original Gothic furniture has survived the test of time. Yet, the Gothic Revival of the 19th century sparked a second love for the gothic style, breathing new life into the antiques of the period, which are still beloved today. Join us through a history of gothic design, beginning in the early 12th century.
Periods of “Old World” Gothic
The early period of Gothic style is also known as High Gothic and Early English. This period, which dates to about 1130— 1240, saw little furniture making in general. Only the wealthiest and most important persons would have furniture, and often they would travel with it. Thus, this period was known for its movable furniture, which broke down or disassembled with ease. Tables with removable tops, folding chairs and collapsible bed frames were popular designs. Churches and monasteries, however, would have more elaborate furniture than the average person. Gothic furniture became popularized through their use in the religious setting.
Early Gothic furniture was quite simple. Wood was the most commonly used material, with craftsmen in England and Germany primarily using oak, Italy and Spain using walnut, and France using chestnut. Decorative additions were few, most frequently being found on metal hinges. If other decorative motifs were present, they would appear as carvings.
The Rayonnant and Decorated period (1240—1350) re-focused on refining decoration and embracing light. Churches specifically welcomed three-dimensional sculptural works, mosaics and columns. This attention to detail progressed in furniture, too. As furniture became more widely accessible over time, its decoration also became more apparent and elaborate. By the 14th century, cabinet makers had developed great skill in both execution and design; some of the French masters include Pierre of Neufchauteau, Jean of Liège, Guillaume of Marcilly, Pierre and Guillaume Picheneau, and Phillippot Viard.
The Late Gothic period (1350—1550) embraced even more decoration in furniture and design — it became know for a new, international flamboyant style. It is the architecture of the Late Gothic period that is the most recognizable. Rich, variegated tracery, decorated ribs and arches over windows are just a few elements of this elaborate design scheme. More and more, the style was moving into the secular realm in all aspects of people’s homes and furniture, and it remained widely influential until the Renaissance age took Europe by storm.
Gothic furniture emerged as a statement of wealth and opulence since furniture was such a rarity in the 12th and 13th centuries. The 14th century, however, brought a more functional quality to Gothic furniture, which spread its popularity across Europe.
The armoire, specifically, became a highly popular component of Gothic furniture – in fact, it was the focal point for many Gothic interiors. As interest in decoration and ornamentation in furniture grew, many armoires began to feature carved, architecturally-inspired designs. Pointed arches, trefoils, quatrefoils and roses were common motifs; cut outs were also popular, as were carvings of grape leaves and vines.
During the middle ages, chairs were associated with majesty and royalty – thus making them scarce for the everyday person. Those who did possess them in 12th century had chairs featuring a low back with circular or rectangular seats. The 13th century saw chairs of lord’s use polygonal shapes, while the 14th century welcomed even more ornate designs, often resembling thrones.